In this series of photographs Hentie van der Merwe’s sojourn into the field of masculinity, memory and war is a poignant deliberation upon the place of the military uniform in the psyche of war and conflict. Shot at the South African Military History Museum in Johannesburg, Van der Merwe’s life-size photographs hone in on some of the military uniforms worn by South African soldiers during the Anglo-Boer South African War, the two World Wars and the Angolan War. Using the convention of blurring, Van der Merwe’s photographs not only disrupt the authority and power of the ritual dress of war, but also bring into question the place of the military uniform as an archive of memory.
Trappings is a continuation of Van der Merwe’s earlier work on the body and the archive. His previous body of work, using a collection of anthropometric photographs of naked white men recruited for duty in the Second World War, was a meditation upon the grid as a mechanism that not only archived momentary identities, but also mapped the parameters of masculinity. In being an exploration of social perceptions about masculinity and war the work inverted traditional self-other dichotomies and offered important answers to the question of a political art in post-apartheid South Africa.
In this new body of work, Van der Merwe has chosen the military uniform – the dressed body – rather than the naked body to explore question of masculinity and memory. In the same way that his earlier work foregrounded the vulnerability of the body readying for war, his new photographs rearticulate the military uniform as the cloth that hides similar vulnerabilities. Traditionally, military uniforms are not only the distinctive dress of members of specific regiments or units, but are also decorative forms of hiding. Even as the imposing, costume-like grandeur of nineteenth-century uniforms fell away as the twentieth century advanced towards the ever-increasing demands for functional battle clothing, costume has remained a crucial form of concealment.
Like the archive, the uniform is a construction of memory. And like the archive, the uniform masks certain contradictions. As much as the uniform is a marker of violence, with medals and bars that speak in colourful, lustrous ways of a soldier’s service to war, it is also a seamless language that along with various other forms of embroidery and metallic details is silent about the detriments of war. Here the wounded, dead and psychologically scarred, lies hidden behind heroic acts and brave deeds. The uniform is a clinical re-articulation of war, a regimental archive of the cold face of masculinity.
The uniform is so much an iconic part of South Africa’s over-militarised history. It is the uniforms of this heritage that Van der Merwe captures in ways that question the brave face of masculinity, the unsullied innocence of war and the intimate details of memory. The absence of sharp details in the photographs, the display case lighting that Van der Merwe re-presents in photographic form and the shifting angles from which he has photographed the mannequins all work together in a series of images that are the antithesis of the vision of military uniforms.
In capturing these uniformed with a blurred vision skewed just enough to lose details but not a sense of immediate recognition, Van der Merwe manages to foreground the fragility of their authority. The uniforms become emasculated by the castration of the details of valour. The luscious, rich and extravagant details, each a marker of authority and privilege, fade beyond recognition into the realm of mere decorative patterns. Without instant markers of recognition, the uniforms become something other than themselves – decapitated, skeletal remains of memory.
Like costumed mannequins in shop front displays, these uniforms stand in the museum context as markers of a fashion for adornment. The natural lighting of the museum displays housing the uniforms adds a ghostly life to a number of the photographs. The uniforms stand isolated from any real context, decapitated from the waist down. As much as the photographs capture the uniforms of particular individuals they also reflect the absence of the male body. Van der Merwe positions them as amputated mannequins, beheaded by the legacies of histories that prioritised the virtues of the valiant and bravery.
The photograph of the reconnaissance gear worn by a soldier from the SADF’s 32 Battalion, in the way that the figure lurches forward from the blue depths of the background, is a particularly poignant reminder of the clandestine history of apartheid-era militarisation in South Africa. Formed in the mid-1970s, at the start of South Africa’s involvement in the Angolan War, 32 Batallion was deeply involved in covert cross-border operations from the then South West Africa into Angola. Van der Merwe’s photograph of an shadowy, indeterminable presence cuts to the core of a military unit whose tactical presence in a foreign land was so vehemently denied by the South African state.
Van der Merwe’s photographs, boxed and recessed behind glass, evoke the museum display cabinets that house so many of these uniforms and their histories. But the stasis of the museum object is reanimated by Van der Merwe’s camera in ways that challenge the archival histories of these uniforms. The way the military remembers its soldiers through the adornment of uniforms and the way the museum remembers its military history come before Van der Merwe’s lens in ways that critically engage the relationship between the selectivity of memory and the power of identity.
The memories of war and the identities assumed of the men who go to war are crystallised in Trappings in ways that challenge our perceptions about military dress. The burden of war, its physical legacies in a land traumatised by a deep-seated physical and mental violence, is brought to the fore in Van der Merwe’s blurred disruptions of military dress icons. His iconoclasm is that of a white man’s guilt fishing the battles of history, battles fought, won and lost in the name of the valour of war.
- Rory Bester